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Jakarta Post

Bali Process pledges agile response to refugees

  • Anggi M. Lubis

    The Jakarta Post

Nusa Dua   /   Thu, March 24, 2016   /  09:15 am

The inability of the Bali Process mechanism to address an influx of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees last year is being used as a lesson for the future as the international forum concludes, bringing out a new declaration and mechanism to ensure an agile and timely response to prevent undesired recurrences.

The sixth Bali Process ended on Wednesday with a 14-paragraph declaration, a document unprecedented at the forum, as well as consent from its 48 member states and organizations to grant Indonesia and Australia authority to call a consultative meeting with affected countries in the case of influx crises.

A UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) report estimated that 33,600 refugees and migrants of various nationalities took to smugglers'€™ boats in Southeast Asia in 2015, the bulk of them Rohingyas and Bangladeshis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Some 370 people are believed to have died in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea during the year.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi and her Australian counterpart Julie Bishop cochaired the international forum, which was designed to address issues on refugees, human trafficking and related transnational issues.

'€œWhen the emergency situation in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal arose, there seemed little we could do in the context of the Bali Process to respond to that emergency situation,'€ Retno told reporters in a joint press conference after the meeting concluded.

'€œWe are as such very grateful for the support from delegates to the sixth Bali Process for creating this regional consultation mechanism.'€

In the mechanism, Indonesia and Australia will play leading roles in determining when to communicate if problems arise.

Retno said that the cochairs would request a steering committee at senior official level to meet and discuss the situation and at certain levels to contact the affected and interested countries.

Bishop called the declaration a '€œlandmark'€ toward reinvigorating coordinated efforts to tackle the current regional and global challenge of irregular migration.

'€œWhen the events in the Andaman Sea unfolded, there was no mechanism for the Bali Process to bring members together in a timely fashion and we believe this [consultation] will give us the opportunity to do so,'€ she said.

The declaration itself comes at a time of growing concerns regarding irregular migration and tragic loss at sea, and highlighted how the decline in refugees in the second half of 2015 was attributable to the efforts of affected countries to disrupt smuggling network.

Among the points in the document are the need for comprehensive regional actions based on border sharing and collective responsibilities, to address the root causes of irregular movement, explore potential temporary protection and local stay arrangements, involuntary return for those found not to be entitled to international protection and the need to engage with the private sectors and raise public awareness.

'€œI think in the past, there was always a strong unilateral response, or one country, but it wasn'€™t done in conjunction with others,'€ said the UNHCR'€™s assistant high commissioner for protection, Volker Türk, who represented the organization at the Bali Process.

'€œWith the events that happened last year, had we had such mechanisms now at the time, we would have certainly called for its [sic] activation.'€

At first reluctant, Indonesia welcomed 1,800 Rohingya refugees last year, while Malaysia accepted another 1,000. Australia, meanwhile, has been refusing to accept refugees that registered in Indonesia in or after July 2014 and has garnered criticism for sending boats carrying migrants back out to sea, although Bishop noted that Australia had taken around 2,000 refugees over the past three years.

Refugees have long been a flashpoint between the two countries, with large numbers seeking to reach Australia by boat ending up stranded in Indonesia instead. The flow of would-be refugees arriving in Australia has largely dried up after Canberra introduced in 2013 a tough policy of turning back vessels when it is safe to do so.

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